When it comes to the world of professional wrestling there is no question that World Wrestling Entertainment is by far the bigger player in the market.
Being the biggest fish in the pond brings benefits, but it also can make a company like WWE be blind to their mistakes. The best current example of this is how the company has been using Roman Reigns.
A member the Anoa’i family, who can be considered wrestling royalty, Reigns has been positioned since 2015 to be the top ‘babyface’ in WWE and the successor to John Cena. He has headlined four straight WrestleMania cards and won the WWE Word Heavyweight, United States, Intercontinental, and Tag Team titles in that time. He has been increasingly used by WWE for mainstream media events and interviews, an assignment the company reserves for their top stars, champions, and executives.
Given this success one would assume that Reigns is among the most popular wrestlers in WWE. However, it takes only one viewing of WWE’s flagship program Monday Night Raw to show how much the opposite is true. Whenever Reigns is shown on TV either having a match or cutting a promo a chorus of loud boos can be heard and it has become more visceral over time, reaching the point of apathy at this year’s WrestleMania in his match with Brock Lesnar and at Backlash against Samoa Joe.
In the Lesnar match, which was telegraphed for a year, the crowd openly rebelled against the expected outcome of a Reigns win for the WWE Universal Title. It got bad enough that reports surfaced after the card that Vince McMahon, the WWE patriarch, changed the result during the match itself. When it came to Backlash whether it was the late start to the match or general apathy the crowd at the Prudential Center got up and left including in one infamous scene after the match right as WWE cameras were scanning the audience.
While the issues with Reigns vary, he’s merely a symptom of a larger problem that is affecting other WWE wrestlers like Sami Zayn, Shinsuke Nakamura, Rusev, and Bayley. A problem that has been hiding in plain sight for years.
The problem is that WWE doesn’t know how to book faces in this era because McMahon still believes he can manufacture one like in the 1980s.
In the 1980s when cable television was in its infancy and wrestling was still a territorial event McMahon was able to consolidate the top talent and create his own narrative over who was a face (a good guy) and who was a heel (a bad guy). The best example of this being Hulk Hogan. When the internet age started in the mid 1990s the paradigm started to shift in the form of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin who was more of an anti-hero than a face. Now in the age of social media wrestlers have much greater access to their audience and in that more control over how they want their character to be viewed as. This is something that McMahon fails to see.
For as much as McMahon has been ahead of the curve in how the business of professional wresting has evolved he has at the same time become out of touch with how his audience views his product. While he may view his audience as more in tune with fans of mixed martial arts, in reality his core viewers , the ones who purposely pay for the WWE Network, is more like boxing fans. Both fan bases have shrunk but also have become more knowledgeable about their product behind the scenes. Because of this wrestling fans have made the process of who is a face become more organic and be based in actual in ring talent.
It’s not like WWE as a whole hasn’t figured this out. Their developmental brand NXT under the direction of McMahon’s son-in-law Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque has become arguably the best product WWE offers. NXT also developed clear faces over the years in Zayn, Bayley, and recently Johnny Gargano, who has earned the WWE two of the company’s three five-star matches this year in the heralded Wrestling Observer Newsletter scale by Dave Meltzer. So in theory WWE knows how to book faces, in practice though once a wrestler reaches the main roster creatively they run into the roadblock of McMahon.
Zayn, among the best overall wrestlers WWE has, had to turn heel to get his career back on track, the same had to be done for Nakamura. Bayley as a character has not grown in the way she was allowed to in NXT and has resulted in fans turning on her. Rusev is actually one of the most ‘over’ wrestlers with fans right now and should be a face but is booked as a heel.
Ultimately the disconnect here is that fans are telling WWE who they want to cheer for but McMahon is still dictating to that same audience who the should cheer for.
McMahon has been known to be stubborn and not willing to admit failure. The upcoming relaunch of his XFL football league, his biggest business failure outside WWE, is a good example of this. As long as he’s at the helm creatively this problem will only continue to grow.
This may have already irreparably damaged Reigns, and others will likely follow.